‘Vincent and the Doctor’ recently re-aired as part of BBC America’s The Doctor’s Finest. An accompanying website quotes writer Richard Curtis:
“I’m terrifically moved by the life and fate of Van Gogh. He’s probably the single great artist—in all formats—who received no praise whatsoever for his work. If you look back at Dickens[*], Chaucer, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci…all hugely famous in their lives. And then this one incredibly popular artist with no praise at all, literally selling the one painting. It was that thought which initially made me wonder whether or not we could use time travel to put that right.”
That is certainly Amy’s intention in the story. She thinks that by appreciating and encouraging him, she can offset his misery sufficiently to extend his life, allowing him to produce many more paintings and perhaps receive some long-overdue acclaim. The Doctor takes the direct route, bringing Vincent to the present to witness his legacy:
“… to me, Van Gogh is the finest painter of them all. Certainly, the most popular great painter of all time. The most beloved. His command of colour, the most magnificent. He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray, but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of our world. No one had ever done it before. Perhaps no one ever will again. To my mind, that strange, wild man who roamed the fields of Provence was not only the world’s greatest artist, but also one of the greatest men who ever lived.”
Sadly, Vincent’s illness is beyond the reach of a few words. Bipolar disorder** can’t be cured by kindness any more than heart disease can. Still, their visit was not in vain.
“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things.”
* The article mentions the Doctor’s visit to Charles Dickens occurring at a “relatively untroubled” point in his life. However, when Nine and Rose first meet him, Dickens is in fact in despair. His marriage over, he travels alone; he has begun to feel old, used up. “Even my imagination grows stale,” he says. “Perhaps I’ve thought everything I’ll ever think.” By the end of the story, he is of course reinvigorated by his adventure; it is implied that their ghostly encounter supplies the ending of Edwin Drood. He, like Vincent, does not live beyond his known span, passing just one year later; but as the Doctor says – in reference Rose’s experience of a man long dead in her time:
“We’ve brought him back to life, and he’s more alive now than he’s ever been, old Charlie boy.”
Doctor Who gives people life.
** The true nature of van Gogh’s illness remains up for debate, but the show depicts him as bipolar. Moffat-era Doctor Who is one of the few places on television where the experience of mental illness is treated with compassion and respect.